Forecasts of low visitor turnout at peak holiday time come as province reports arrivals down 30 percent in first quarter due to temple dispute.
Photo by: AFP
Tourists visit Preah Vihear temple in this file photo taken last year.
PREAH Vihear province's tourism sector has been hit hard by a long-simmering dispute with Thailand over ownership of land surrounding an ancient cliff-top temple and the local tourism authority is bracing itself for a quiet New Year after fighting broke out again earlier this month.
"This New Year, there are likely to be fewer tourists to Preah Vihear temple than last New Year due to fears of artillery fire from Thailand but, in fact, security in the province is strong and stable," Preah Vihear provincial tourism chief Kong Vibol said Monday.
Ownership of land around the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple near the Thai border has long been in dispute, despite the World Court awarding the temple to Cambodia in 1962. Tensions flared last July when UNESCO, the UN cultural agency, approved Cambodia's bid to have the Preah Vihear temple named a World Heritage site, leading to several outbreaks of fighting between Cambodian and Thai troops over the last nine months.
The latest flare-up was on April 3 when Cambodian and Thai troops traded fire with guns, rockets and artillery. Each side blamed the other for reigniting the conflict.
Kong Vibol said the ongoing dispute had resulted in a 30.1 percent year-on-year decline in tourist arrivals in the first quarter of the year from 23,898 to 16,700. "The main drop was at Preah Vihear temple due to the border conflict," he said.
The main drop was at Preah Vihear temple due to the border conflict.
He predicted that tourist numbers for the full year would fall sharply from the 120,000 received last year, most of whom, he said, visited the Preah Vihear temple. "Based on the first-quarter report, it is predicted that the number of tourists to Preah Vihear will drop sharply," Kong Vibol said. Koh Ker temple and Preah Khan Kampong Svay temple were also popular tourist destinations in the province, he added.
Statistics from the Ministry of Tourism show that 65,182 domestic tourists visited the province in 2008, up from 37,530 visitors the year before, while the province hosted 62,258 foreign visitors, well down on the 90,693 that visited in 2007.
A month-by-month breakdown was not available Monday, but anecdotal reports last year showed that domestic visitors to the temple surged surrounding UNESCO's decision to list the temple as a World Heritage site but fell away as the standoff continued. Foreign arrivals also plummeted at that point.
Ho Vandy, a board member of the Cambodian Association of Travel Agents and managing director of World Express Tours & Travel, said Monday that the border conflict and the ongoing global financial crisis had combined to limit visitor arrivals at the site. "Since the start of the border conflict last July, we have sold very few tour packages to Preah Vihear temple," Ho Vandy said.
Preah Vihear province has only seven guesthouses with 120 rooms, Kong Vibol added.
Over 3,000 ancient temples remain in Cambodia, but so far just two have been listed as World Heritage sites: Angkor Wat in 1992 and Preah Vihear temple in 2008. Cambodia is preparing other temples throughout the country for nomination to UNESCO, including Sambo Preykub and Banteay Chhmar.